However intuitive an idea that freedom may seem, it appears that it is a rather difficult one to completely conceptualize. In fact, most people claim to want to be free, but are vehemently resistant to that which comprises liberty. So, what does it mean to be free or, more appropriately, what does it mean to live in a free society? This is, I believe, the ultimate question of societal development; and one that has been quite elusive for most generations of humans.
James Madison noted in 1792 that “Although all men are born free, and all nations might be so, yet too true it is, that slavery has been the general lot of the human race.” Madison’s words were quite spot on in this observation. Regardless of the commonly held belief that slavery was, perhaps, a uniquely American and specifically white tradition, the truth is that humans have always sought to place their fellow man in servitude. However, servitude comes in many forms, albeit the economic form is the most focused upon, it is not the only type of servitude. The servitude I wish to focus on in this brief writing is that of the social form.
Both sides of the ideological “aisle” believe that they have the key to engineering a more perfect society…that if they could only make people behave the way they believe is right, then society could finally be righteous and operate in perfect harmony. Whether these social engineers operate from an elected position, a bureaucratic one, a pulpit, or an educational institution is irrelevant. What is relevant is their fundamental belief that if other individuals are not free to act or behave of their own free will, society will be better off and subsequently so will said individual. This is not freedom, nor is it liberty. Instead it is servitude. It is the idea that one person should have a claim on another’s life.
Imagine for a moment the liberal progressive who stands in staunch support of a woman’s right to make choices for her own body while simultaneously holding that people should not be able to determine how it is best to employ the fruits of their own body’s labors (which is their earnings). Now take the traditional conservative who believes that guns do not kill people; however, they can seem quite certain that casinos make people gamble, liquor stores make people into drunks, and prostitutes make people have sex. Is this likeness in the subversion of one’s fellow citizens unique to liberals or conservatives…or perhaps it is a Republican and Democratic phenomenon? No, it is not unique. It is, however, a common human behavior.
To truly discover and enjoy freedom, we must all be able to accept one fundamental truth: freedom is uncomfortable at times. If there does not exist a point in time in our society in which each of us are made uncomfortable by the actions of our fellow citizens then freedom has eluded us. For example, there is no need for a First Amendment to protect popular speech—by definition popular speech needs no protection. We must accept that people have the right to say stupid things, believe absurd things, and act in ways which we might not condone or endorse. Additionally, as free people we always reserve the right to call their words, ideas, and actions stupid. We do not, under any definition of a free society, have the right to legislate their words, thoughts, or actions out of existence; lest we hold it acceptable for them to do the same to us once the political winds shift.